After twelve of these things, I finally come to a Bond film that’s exactly as old as I am. Feels strange to see it again from a recently re-educated perspective. Thanks to its pedigree this is was one of the first Bond films my generation saw as children and I’m no different. Throughout, I catch myself…not watching it so much as…remembering it. And more importantly, remembering the color of the walls in the room where I watched it for the first five hundred times. I was…how old? That part I can’t remember. It’s lost. But that room is as clear and bright now as it was back then.
I can remember the poster for this film, which – being the child I was – immediately made me think of Ray Harryhausen’s six-armed Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Young-me was nonplussed to discover Bond never fights a magically animated statue, not even once. However, the scene where Miss Sweden 1970, Kristina Wayborn, uses her sarong to escape a second floor balcony, literally unwrapping her way down the ground, more than made up Kali Ma’s absence.
I think this is what you humans call “nostalgia.” I hear you use it to ignore faults in things you liked when you were children. Things that give you a warm, comfortable feeling of remembrance and security. Believe it or not, I enjoy those feelings as much as any bloke. And because of that I enjoyed Octopussy more than I thought I would. As usual, this does not mean I’m going to go easy on it, but feel free to j’accuse me.
Conflicting reports indicate For Your Eyes Only was meant to be the last adventure of the Third Bond, Roger Moore. But when Sean Connery chose to reprise the role in Kevin McClory’s long-awaited (by Kevin McClory, at any rate) remake of Thunderball, what else could Eon Productions do but lure Moore back? The idea of fielding a Fourth Bond against the First terrified everyone, so Octopussy finds a fifty-six-year-old Moore squaring off against a sixty-two-year-old Louis Jourdan to win the heart of a thirty-eight-year-old Maud Adams. Considering Connery walked away from all this before he hit forty, the sight of Moore going through these motions is starting to look absurd. Not quite as absurd as all those snobby 60s film critics thought Dr. No was when it first came out…but we’ve got one Moore to go, don’t we?
And I don’t want to jump ahead of myself. I like Octopussy because, aside from the absurd title and occasional eccentricities, it’s another actual “Cold War spy thriller” from a series that sold itself as such and only really delivered (in my opinion – because that’s what this site is) three times out of twelve. From Russia with Love and For Your Eyes Only were simple MacGuffin Hunts with interesting complications. The Spy Who Loved Me augmented that with a Bondian Supervillain Plot, making the MacGuffins nuclear subs. Octopussy attempts to do the same and while it stumbles over the grasping tentacles of its own Dread Formula, it never shatters its teeth on the sidewalk like, say, Moonraker.
It’s a strange, schizophrenic Bond film I don’t think would stand out from its Moore Era siblings without the odd-ass name – the name of a boat Ian Fleming’s neighbor and sometime-lover Blanche Blackwell gave him at some point in the late-50s. As a sequel to For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy feels like a throwback to the days when World War III was just a week away. Détente? What the hell’s that? Never heard of it…but it sounds French, so for no good reason I’m immediately suspicious.
It’s like the movie keeps undercutting itself. The puns-to-effective-dialogue ratio here is skewed toward Punsville, with Bond never letting up after his first, barely two minutes in. Bond’s undercover in what I presume is Cuba (based on everyone’s beards) as Col. Toro. To which he says, “What a load of bull.” And he’s right, though for the wrong reasons. I expect that kind of shit during the visits to Q’s lab, or after Bond kills someone in a particularly brutal way…but does every. Single. One. Of his damn lines have to be so fucking puny? The script – by series vet Richard Maibaum, his partner from the last film, Micheal G. Wilson, and the writer of the Salkind’s Three Musketeers films, George MacDonald Fraser – seems designed for a comedy. Then someone will catch a knife with their gut, or a saw blade with their face, or an alligator with the rest of their body, and you’ll think, “Huh…okay…how seriously am I supposed to take all this again? I really am confused. And if I hadn’t watched the previous twelve films, I’d be even more confused than I am now.” At least Octopussy firmly sets a tone for itself, and sticks with it. Unfortunately, it’s the tone of the previous decade’s Bond films, which I’d thought the series had gotten over last time. What the fuck is the point of firing Christopher Wood if you’re just going to make your remaining writers sound like him?
After blowing up a hanger full of planes and people in his Bede BD-5J (what’s it’s name? “Little Nikki”? I’d name mine “Darling Nikki.” Cuz we’d sho’nuff show those Commies how to grind) the film cuts to…a clown. Fleeing an East German circus. Pursued by the twin knife throwers, Mischka and Grischka (David and Anthony Meyer). They knife the clown, but our orange-haired Hero manages to crash through the wall of the British Ambassador’s house, rolling a Faberge Egg across the floor with his dying strength. This is the first and last we’ll see of Agent Double-Oh Nine (Andy Bradford), may he rest in peace. His floppy shoes no doubt adorn an honored place at MI6 to this very day.
Back at “Universal Exports” we see our first new M, Robert Brown. And he’s…okay…but I get a very different M-Energy off of Brown than I ever got off Bernard Lee. Less angry, more worrisome. Maybe it’s a function of how little he has to do, never once telling Bond to “take a leave of absence.” (Don’t you just hate it when you have to train a new boss?) Honestly, I liked the last film’s answer to Bernard Lee’s 1981 death – James Villiers as Chief of Staff Tanner – a lot more. The producers thought Villners too young to play M, but what the fuck did they know? Here they are, running a Bond who’s long-since ceased to be the Saint through car chase after fist fight after bout of alligator wrestling, like the last ten years never happened.
Not that I’m complaining…not yet. Is that not what we supposedly want from these films? So Bond is tasked with Double-Oh Nine’s old job: find the source of some fake Faberge Eggs currently making their way through Europe. M suspects it’s all a clandestine KGB fund-raising project and he’s half right. On the way out, Lois Maxwell returns in her penultimate role as Moneypenny, and just to make us nervous, introduces us to her new assistant, Penelope Smallbone (Michaela Clavell). Don’t get used to her.
The fake egg leads Bond to the real one, on auction at Sotheby’s. There Bond gets into a bidding war with the “exiled Afghan prince” Kamal Kahn (Louis Jourdan) and Kahn’s Gal Friday, Magda (Kristina Wayborn). Trailing them back to India, Bond confronts…KAAAAAHHHHHNNN!…over a game of backgammon in the strongest scene of the film and the strongest Bond Meets Villain Over Game scene we’ve seen since Goldfinger. I’ll admit, Kahn would bore the hell out of me if he were played by anyone other than Louis Jourdan…but this is two years out from Louis’ (for me) star making turn as Swamp Thing’s nemesis, Dr. Anton Arcane, so I’m hypnotized by everything the man does.
I recognize that, by this point in his life, Louis Jourdan was Louis Jourdan no matter what role he played. For the most part, that’s good enough…so long as you avoid thinking about Kahn’s motivations. Jourdan shows off his real talent in the backgammon scene: one of the best “I’m-going-to-kill-you-slow” faces in all of villainous character-actordom. When he leans across the table and says “Spend the money quickly…Mr. Bond,” I’m unashamed to say an honest chill goes down my spine. Too bad his talents are turned to such a flat antagonist. I can guess why an “exiled Afghan prince” (who looks and sounds suspiciously French) would want to participate in this movie’s Evil Plot…but “guess” is all I can do, since there’s little to go on in the actual film.
Instead, we get international tennis pro Vijay Amritraj as Bond’s Local Contact in India, turning in about what you’d expect for an athlete cum actor in a big budget action movie. The fact he plays the blandest Local Contact we’ve had since Lt. Hip and his pair of Kung Fu Schoolgirls doesn’t help, nor the fact that his range is only slightly wider than Shaquel O’Neal’s. I’m not even sure mentioning him is worth the space, since he mainly exists to be Bond’s driver throughout the obligatory car chase through New Delhi’s streets, and his Almost Obligatory Death is quick, unceremonious, and damn convenient. Some think it breaks the mood, being so “dark” and all…and while I felt some whiplash, it was nowhere near the strain caused by Corinne Dufour’s Death by Pack of Guard Dogs in Moonraker.
Around this point, I began to sense a creeping familiarity to all this. Not to previous Bond movies – my head’s already full of those, and it’s all I can do to keep memories of future Bond movies from intruding. But as Bond fights through crowds of brown people, using found weapons to defend himself from Kamal Kahn’s Guy Friday, Gobinda (Kabir Bedi), and his army of thugs (ha-ha…see what I did there?), I start having uncomfortable Raiders of the Lost Ark flashbacks. Between the sword swallower, the torch-jugglers, the bed o’ nails, the bed of hot coals, and the fact we meet Vijay as he’s charming a snake beside the Ganges, I started wondering Where’s Mola Ram? Then I remembered he wouldn’t make it to screen for another year.
I’m uncomfortable recognizing this because Indiana Jones is a creator-admitted elaboration of the archetypes Bond established. After all, Steven Spielberg almost directed The Spy Who Loved Me and was never shy about his love of Rousing Adventure Fiction in general. Creating his own character made more sense, in a post-Star Wars world, than hitching his star to an established franchise, so that’s what he did, picking up what the Bond franchise had long-since laid down in the name of “accessibility” to a “general audience.” Surprise, sur-fucking-prise, it caught on with a general audience sick of being talked down to by their films. It became so successful, it began to warp other Action franchises as they rushed to copy its success.
For better or worse, Raiders really was the Star Wars of Action Movies: a massive hit that reinvigorated its genre for a new decade, despite no one really believing it would ever do much in the first place. Octopussy‘s fist fights (with their meaty, even-more-familiar sound effects) and elaborate chase sequences are an early sign of that invigoration, as director John Glen begins doing tricks with cinematic grammar his predecessors would’ve called “sloppy.” Today, for the sake of distinction, call them “Spielbergian.”
My best example comes near the end, when Bond’s trapped aboard a circus train with a nuclear bomb, disguised in nothing but a gorilla suit (go with it). He accidentally knocks one canister of compressed air into another, alerting Gobinda, who happens to be in the same compartment. We see Gobinda draw a sword and approach the gorilla suit. He turns, slices its head off…and in the space that head used to occupy in frame we see Bond, in the background, already escaping through the traincar’s roof.
How did he do that? Off-screen teleportation. And how did Gobinda not see him escape the suit or start climbing for the hatch? I don’t know. The point is, we didn’t see Bond do either of those things either. For all intents and purposes, they don’t exist as events because they aren’t in the film. We only saw their results, heightening our tension by denying us information. Movies do this kind of thing all the time, to the point we barely notice. My point is they didn’t used to. This is a relatively new trend, cast off as easily as 3D or bullet time.
That’s not a criticism, just a statement of fact we would do well to keep in mind as all these films start to look even more like each other.
Here’s a criticism I’m sure you haven’t heard me make often enough: Kahn’s contact in the Soviet military, General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), is pants-on-head idiot with a needlessly complex Villainous Plot that doesn’t make any damn sense. Hey, we’re back in familiar Bond territory, but this time, we’ve got an over-actor of unfathomable proportions as Our Villain. Seriously, I did not remember the amount of scenery Steven Berkoff chews throughout here, but I’m amazed any sets were left standing. Particularly the comically Communist meeting room, with its rotating table, interactive maps, and obligatory Bigass Picture of Lenin.
Despite the lack of Ken Adam, these are some amazing sets – most of them real locations in India, like the Monsoon Palace. Now owned by the Forest Department of the Government of Rajasthan, it’s apparently open to the public, so you should all go see it if you get the chance. It’s naturally beautiful in a way sets could never be, complimenting the film’s characters without overwhelming them. They need all the help they can get, what with their being such one-dimensional criminals. Jourdan we’ve spoken of, while Orlov comes from the “evil! IS! SHOUTING!” school, and the final point in this villainous triad is played by a Bond Girl…from beyond the grave! Who was…kind of…interesting to begin with…ten years ago…but now…damnit.
I suppose you’d need a familiar face to play someone with a name like Octopussy. It’s one of those words that shouldn’t necessarily pass human lips. It sounds like getting thumped in the forehead feels, if that makes any sense. Unless Louis Jourdan says it. Then it just sounds funny. Most of the time, though, it reminds me of what Harrison Ford allegedly said to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars: “You can write this shit, but you can’t say it.”
To be fair, Fleming didn’t write any of this shit. If anything, this story’s a sequel to its namesake. The events of the short story Octopussy (Bond’s sent to track down a gold smuggler, but gives him twenty-four hours to kill himself instead of outright killing him) provide Maud Adam’s character with a Defining Element of Tragedy. In other words, a textbook Richard Maibaum woman, haunted by a Great Loss only a Good Man can help her get over.
On the other hand, Octopussy’s very much a classical Bond supervillain, right out of the Goldfinger mold. She’s got the sweet pad, henchwomen with the matching uniforms (looking a bit like Thing One and Thing Two, but I guess SPECTRE used up all the good costuming options), and the international smuggling organization, even giving Bond the “we’re two of a kind” speech after she and Kamal capture him. Hell, Octopussy’s gone Goldfinger one better, proudly stating, “I’ve deversified into shipping, hotels, carnivals and circuses.” You go, girl. That’s the way real supervillains rule this world.
I also love her self-righteous speech to Bond right before everything falls apart. “I don’t have to apologize to you, a paid assassin, for what I am!” But, like all righteous babes in this franchise, she melts into the magic arms and succumbs to the Magic Schlong of…the man originally sent to kill her father…which is just…weird…in a way even Frank Miller might shy away from. Starting off an independent businesswoman, trying to make her way in a harsh world, Octopussy still gets betrayed and kidnapped by Kahn in time for the third act. Gotta raise them stakes somehow. Might as well give Our Anti-Heroine a dose of Tiffany Case Syndrome.
At least Octopussy supplies this movie’s All-Girl Good Guy Army. Magda – who turns out to be Octopussy’s Gal Friday on temporary loan to Kahn – is as underdeveloped as any character in this franchise played by a Miss Universe runner-up…but at least she gets to kick some ass. And correct me if I’m wrong…but she’s also the first First Woman To Sleep With Bond in a Film and live since…the early-60s…wow…that can’t be right…can it…? Except I think it is.What does that say about how stale the franchise became during the 70s?
I’m clinging to every superficial permutation in the Formula (like changing the gender of our titular antagonist). Even with them, we wind up with a literal ticking clock and a loose nuclear bomb bound for the American Base in West Germany. We’ve see all this done better twenty years before, and even back in 1974 Maud Adams was no Honor Blackman.
I’d really like to know what happened to her in the late 70s (besides Rollerball). Dracula’s golden bullet did not improve her acting at all. Nor did rock climbing in Greece help Roger Moore, who at least maintains a professional air, indistinguishable from his characterization of Bond. Jourdan is…Jourdan. And while the action is universally good, it’s punctuated with a tension-killing breed of humor we should all be familiar with by now. This is the Bond movie where Our Hero swings through the trees, yelling like Tarzan. This is the Bond film where he defuses a bomb dressed as a clown. This is the film that tires to please everyone.
As usual, this winds up pleasing no one, and only pleased me by the skin of its teeth. Surface permutations aside, this is a movie that can’t commit and so comes off as a fairly standard Bond adventure, a strange blend of Bond’s Cold War and Supervillain capers. If our Secret Agent man wasn’t so middle-aged, or if this franchise wasn’t so desperate to re-prove its own relevance, Octopussy might’ve been the next Goldfinger…or the next Spy Who Loved Me. Instead, it feels like a sequel to Live and Let Die, managing to be better than Live‘s actual sequel by the barest of margins and the strength of its cast. Still, it’s better than a saw blade to the face…or a straight-up remake of Thunderball.